SO it turns out that Leonardo’s ‘Rearing Horse’ in the Hunt Museum in Limerick – one of the most popular exhibits there – is not a Leonardo at all. Metallurgical analysis has revealed that it was cast in the 19th century.
At best, its false attribution was a mistake, at worst, a forgery. Either way, its altered attribution not merely will cause it to forfeit its value as a prize exhibit, but it reveals once again the vital role of “whence” in our evaluation of the beauty of anything.
This is, in a way, a testament to the snobbery with which we invest almost all aesthetic values. We want our artefacts to have been touched by the hand of a known genius, rather than be the product of a Birmingham smelter.
Moreover, humans like narratives – that is in our genes, from when our ancestors of the Lower Palaeolithic huddled around the newly-tamed fire, telling tales.
A work that was lovingly shaped in Renaissance Florence, where Bellini cavorted with luscious strumpets, where Michelangelo caressed the buttocks of winsome youths, and where lethal toxins bubbled in a Borgia vial, tells a compelling story.
The grubby Brummagem steelwright, Stan Winterbottom by name, pouring molten metals into humble Black Country clays is somewhat less inspiring.
What puts the chalices of Ardagh and Derrynaflan, or the Book of Kells, beyond all value, is not just their astounding, imperishable beauty, but also the unknown story behind them.
The monks toiling by the guttering tallow in the Round Tower, illustrating the gospels, the silversmith laying gold filigree and cobweb tracery upon a gold-lined goblet which one day will house the body and blood of the Redeemer of Mankind: these are irresistible images, within an irresistible if imaginary tale.
Indeed, they are more than that. They are key talismans to our national identity, to the sense of an ancient Ireland which minded the flame of civilisation when Europe was lost to the sword of the Vandal and rapine of the Visigoth.
Things are not just things. They become more valuable with a history. Hence the role of the word “provenance” in any work of art. The P-word is central to the value of any artefact.
It is what enables charlatans, crooks, frauds, brainless snobs and ordinary mortals to agree on common myths about the value of any work of art. Who actually gains if a Leonardo is shown not to be a Leonardo, but a Winterbottom?
There are thus good commercial reasons to maintain certain artistic fictions. Moreover, the more prolific an artist, the more possible – and more profitable – it is to attribute hitherto “unknown works” to him (and we are generally speaking of “him” here: important female artists are so rare as not to merit a neutral pronoun).
Van Gogh – the embodiment of the “tortured genius” cliché – worked in such a frenzied chaos of undocumented creativity that freshly-discovered works are regularly being attributed to him.
Picasso, the very opposite of Van Gogh, and the greatest charlatan of them all, deliberately created so many works as to confound art historians and collectors.
He invented the very concept of a Picasso “brand”, which the credulous, the greedy, and the phoney, could all subscribe to. The huge commercial importance of this brand is such that it is able to resist Picasso’s own devastating indictment of it.
“The rich, the professional idlers desire only the peculiar, the sensational, the eccentric, the scandalous in today’s art,” he wrote. “I myself, since the advent of cubism, have fed these fellows what they wanted and satisfied the critics with all the ridiculous ideas which passed through my head.
“The less they understood, the more they admired me. Through amusing myself with all these farces, I became celebrated. I do not have the effrontery to consider myself an artist. I am only a public clown, a mountebank.
I have understood my time and have exploited the imbecility, the vanity, the greed of my contemporaries.” Never has there more a more searing indictment of the artmarket place and of art criticism, and of depraved values therein.
Yet this turned out to be a turning point in the history of art, around which the history of art refused to turn. Most US banks have invested in Picassos. The forces of greed and self-interest, which Picasso had both initially exploited and later deplored, had too much to lose by accepting him at his word.
It almost was as if the US Treasury announced it would no longer honour dollar bills, whereupon the dollar promptly rose on the the world’s currency markets.
FOR there is no more bogus value system in any marketplace than that which governs the art world, and in which the role of “provenance”, bogus or real, is invariably king. So it is immensely to the credit of the Hunt Museum, and its curator, Virginia Teehan, that we now know the origin of the ‘Rearing Horse’.
And logically, it is as beautiful today, though it might only be a Winterbottom, as it was yesterday, when it was a Leonardo. But sadly, to the eye of the beholder, it just doesn’t seem like it.